The Drowning Child

Peter Singer is an Australian philosopher who created a thought experiment called The Drowning Child, in 2009.

In this thought experiment, we imagine ourselves walking down the street. Suddenly, we notice a girl drowning in a lake. We have the ability to swim, and we are also close enough to save her life if we take action immediately. However, doing so will ruin our expensive shoes. Do we still have an obligation to save her?

Peter’s answer to this question is yes. We do have a responsibility to save the life of a drowning child and price is no object. If we agree with him on this statement, it leads us to a salient thought-provoking question: If we are obligated to save the life of a child in need, is there a fundamental difference between saving one who is right in front of us and one on the other side of the world?

In his book, The Life You Can Save, Peter argues that there is no moral difference between a child drowning in front of you and one starving in some far off land. The cost of the ruined shoes in saving a drowning child is analogous to the cost of a donation in saving a starving child. And if the value of our shoes is irrelevant to us, the price of the charity should be irrelevant too. If we save the nearby child, we have to save the distant one too. He, in fact, even put his money where his mouth is, and started a program to make people donate to charities across the world.

There are definitely some arguments against this thought experiment. Most of them rely on the idea that a drowning child is in a different type of situation than a child who is starving in another part of the world, and that they require different solutions which impose different obligations.

Most of us would innately rescue a child drowning in front of us – it would be rather monstrous to compare a child’s life to a pair of shoes! But how many of us really pay attention to charities? How many of us actually donate to charities? How many of us take a second to sympathise a child who is starving in a city overwhelmed with poverty? What is the difference?

⁃ SaaniaSparkle 🧚🏻‍♀️

263 thoughts on “The Drowning Child

  1. A fascinating thought…..most people know that many of the charities use 50+% of the donations to pay for ads, CEO and non-vital stuff….so why give them money that no desperate people will ever see? Be well chuq

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  2. Well, it is not surprising that we will sooner save a drowning child from us than we will send a donation to the foundation. Our world is full not only of people of good will, but also of cheaters, who make money on foundations. And unfortunately many of them don’t go to starving children. even if they send it to the government of a given country, the distribution of this good is different. We are afraid that our money will not go to bread for a poor child. Whoever has ever dealt with such activities knows how much fraud there is …, cunning … We also have another example, a woman sitting with a child on the sidewalk asks for money for a child or a dog. Because and animals are used for this. A man drives up later and takes the money, what do you think? It is not easy with this help. And drowning, if you give him a hand, then he is definitely a salvage man, not a rich man with a fat belly. You know that your effort really goes to this child. Hence we have dilemmas, what to do?

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  3. Dear Saania, it’s unbelievable that you are such a very young girl and have written this post! You seem to be quite talented,
    Even if interested I won’t find the time to read your posts. Just read my post “Thanks” on the right on top of of my blog for that.
    Your questions here are questions for a life time. I have tried to answer them for myself and get the right balance for me for long . In your case it depends on so many details that aren’t mentioned : a small or big, even heavy girl? how far away? people around? better, stronger swimmers ? etc I’d risk my shoes without the details in the first case 😉 , but not my life. I’d try to call the police or better swimmers if the girl was too far away in the depths. I ‘m quite sure about it. But : would I? How would I really react in such situation ? Just stand there, tremble and react too late??😉
    Your second question : of course we mustn’t forget about all those suffering outside our “world” but we can’t do it all the time. Once you’ve found a trustworthy organisation there will be more and more to ask you. Balance welcome once again!
    Well, dear Saania, my answer is too general and it’s possibly wrong somehow, although it has taken a lot of time. It’s interesting here on your blog with such a clever young girl. But even if interested I won’t find tenough time to read your posts. Just read my post “Thanks” on the right on top of of my blog for that. Hopefully you’ll understand. Cheers and thanks, Petra

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  4. Wenn die geringste meiner Schwestern, in mir, in meiner Seele, hungert, wenn sie in “tödlicher” Gefahr ist. Dann möchte ich mich zu dem “subjektiven” Ereignis, mir in meinem Traum, mir zu derselben Frage, “ihr” den gleichen Respekt geben.

    When the least of my sisters, in me, in my soul are starving, if she in “deadly” danger is. Then I want to ask me, to the “subjective” event, me in my dream, me to the same question, give “her” the same respect.

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  5. This is a great satire. We should have some duties in life, in which we should not be in a dilemma under these circumstances. Also, while spending on our luxury, we should definitely consider those needs of our city, village or our country, maybe we can reduce those expenses and do something for those people too. Very good post

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  6. Thanks for spending time in my blog today and letting me know by leaving likes. Kind of you. This article of yours is thought provoking. I benefit by reading it. Thanks.

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  7. This is a good satire. There should be some moral duties in our lives, so that we do not have to be confused about working under such conditions. In addition, when we spend extravagantly for our luxury, we must think at once about our city, village or those of our country who find it difficult to get daily food. Perhaps by thinking about them, we can reduce our expenses and also help any needy. Very good post

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  8. I don’t know about anyone else but I would save the drowning child and I would save a child across the world if I knew the money I sent would be used in the right way and not making someone rich while the child still drowns. There have been too many instances of this happening even with the charities that we thought we could rely on….I know I’m becoming cynical but history has made me more that way…

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  9. The difference is corruption. How do I know that my money goes to that starving child and it’s not detoured by corrupt officials to their expensive houses? I’d rather put the food in the hands of the child myself.

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  10. Why cant i take off my shoes and jump? 😛

    So, the situation demands us to be altruistic and self-sacrificing at the same time. The child is drowning and in need of help along with letting go of your prized possession.

    Let us change the shoes with something else…something more alive. Something if lost could emotionally wreck us. Then see how to solve that problem.

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  11. I had a ten year old friend who could swim. Her friend was drowning and she was trying to get her out of the water. A man jumped in to save them, got her friend and she drowned. We give to charities all the time, but there is nothing as heartbreaking as watching a catastrophe happen.

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  12. Girl you have not only impressed me with your writing but also triggered my thoughts! I believe in charity but at the same time I do not trust donating through NGOs or other indirect platforms. I often help people around me

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  13. We react in a particular way to what we see instantaneously and the other way what we don’t see but happens. A topic to think about. Wonderful article Saaniya.

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  14. Reblogged this on Citizen Tom and commented:
    If you are interested in philosophy, then SaaniaSparkle has a blog you will probably find interesting. It is surprising a 15 year old would come up with it, but there are some smart young people out there.

    Here SaaniaSparkle poses a thought experiment invented by Peter Singer (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Singer). Does a drowning child in front of us make the same moral demands as a starving child on the other side of the world.

    As SaaniaSparkle realizes to some extent at least, Singer creates an interesting, but false equivalency. The drowning child in front of us does not make the same demands upon us as a starving child on the other side of the world.

    The drowning child puts us in the position of the Good Samaritan. It will cost us to help, but we can do something, and we clearly have a responsibility. We have the capacity to pull the child out of the water and fix the problem.

    The starving children all around the world pose a much more complex problem. That is not to say we don’t have a personal obligation to help, but there is no simple fix, and the priorities are not as obvious. If we have a drowning child in front of us, then we would have an obligation to drop everything and pull the child out of the water. The starving child, on the other hand, poses no such sense of immediacy. Instead, we each have to consider our priorities and decide which charitable organization we should to contribute to and how much. In addition, since most starvation is due to corrupt governments, not inadequate natural resources, we have wonder what good our donations will accomplish. There is no point in dumping money into a bottomless pit. In fact, if our donations strengthen a dictator, we may be doing something immoral.

    We each have to deal with the problem of our human limitations. We each can only do so much. Hence, when our Lord judges us, He will probably be trying to decide whether we did what we could, not whether we fixed all the worlds problems.

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  15. The Cynical me says the drowning child is a situation where you know that the cost will be directly spent on the object helped. Giving money gives you no guarantee that it will go directly and completely to the object of your Charity. You can tweak your thought experiment to say you assume it will all be spent on saving the starving child but in truth we know there are admin costs and possibly corrupt interventions. Thus where the impact of our charitable giving is 100%guaranteed we know the choice is truly binary. Giving money to some distant promise is not, it’s conditional. Thus I’d suggest this is a crap thought experiment… not that I’m against giving money to a good cause rather than wasting it on expensive shoes. That’s just egregious…

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